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Modern Warfare: The rise of a new artistic medium
Posted on Sunday, July 6 2008 @ 23:54:02 PST

This blog contains spoilers concerning Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. If you haven't played the game, I highly suggest you do so, then come back and read this. I personally feel that the nature of the spoilers is such that they'd still have the desired impact if you knew about them already, but you may not feel the same way and I don't want anyone angry at me. Ideally I'd like for this to open up discussion about games as art, but I'm not sure if anyone will ever even read this, so who knows what will happen. I also apologize for the length, and the lack of formatting. without further ado:

I've never before played a game in which a character I control is killed halfway through the storyline. Nor have I ever seen a better example of how games can (and should, no less) convey ideas and make statements than Call of Duty 4. Having experienced both of these phenomenon in the past few hours, I feel that not only has my life been bettered because of it, but that gaming as a medium has been bettered. Going into CoD4, I expected typical shooter fare; good guys go in, act like the well oiled killing machines that they are and take down legions of bad guys, bring a particularly bad guy to justice, and go home to share a round at the bar, swapping war stories in the now peaceful world. What I got was an intense, brutal, and at times beautifully tragic commentary on the realities of war in the modern age.

First person shooters have the unfortunate tendency to try desperately to be big budget action movies. This has always been true to an extent, but with the success of Halo, the trend seems to be gaining sway. This trend, however, restricts gaming as a means of artistic expression. by aping film, developers ignore what makes gaming unique in an attempt to make a quick buck, rather than utilizing the unique abilities of the medium as well as proven cinematic techniques to make something truly great. CoD4 bucks this trend, eschewing the conceits of the genre to craft something new and truly remarkable. This is best illustrated through what would be called cutscenes in other games. CoD4 keeps alive the tradition started by Half-Life by keeping the player in first person at all times, however the viewpoint shifts between 4 different characters over the course of the game, and at certain points varying degrees of control are taken away from the player. It would be a misnomer to call these segments cutscenes, but there really isn't any other word in the gaming lexicon to describe them. These scenes are exactly what set games apart from movies; they allow for strong plot development, as well as interactivity. The resulting immersion is greater than any other experience that has been created.

Infinity Ward was apparently not content to just deliver a new experience that is vital to the artistic growth of the medium, however. They not only created the tool, but demonstrated how to perfectly utilize their creation to immerse the player in the narrative. In the first of such sequences, the player is put in the shoes of the president of a country in the middle of an uprising. as the player is dragged to a car and driven through the streets of their city, they are forced to watch as loyal citizens are lined up and gunned down by rebels as the leader of the insurrection's calls for a great revolution echo throughout the streets. It becomes painfully clear to the player what is to become of him as he is kicked and dragged from the car into the middle of a stadium and tied to a post as the leader of the rebellion gives his speech to the cameras set up nearby. As the fatal moment drew near I felt the horrible feeling in my gut become more and more powerful, and as the rebel leader leveled his gun at my head, I found myself turning away, unable to face my own death. The next of these sequences was equally jarring, if not moreso. The player is put in the perspective of the marine that they have been playing as for the past few missions, the marine who's helicopter was just caught in a nuclear blast. After being shown a list on names of marines killed in the blast, with their character's name highlited, the player is put back into their head as they crawl feebly out of the ruined helicopter, past the burning bodies of their former squadmates, and in full view of the ominous mushroom cloud looming over the city. as you look up at the instantly recognizeable shape, the only sounds you hear are your own whimpers of pain and your character's heartbeat pounding in your ears while the screen fades and you succumb to pain and radiation poisoning.

These scenes also show why CoD4 is so important: it is entirely focused on its message, and it is completely unflinching in it's delivery. The game is named Modern Warfare, not because it is set in modern day, but because it is a look at what modern warfare is; it is brutal, violent, incredibly dangerous and destructive, and doesn't end with the good guys beating the bad guys and going home like the old wars. in modern combat, people get executed on national T.V., entire cities get leveled in needless acts of destruction, and the good guys die just as easily as the bad guys. Modern Warfare doesn't treat war like a game, there is no drawn out boss battle against the main villain at the end. He gets killed by a pistol, a weapon most FPS fans ignore in favor of the big, automatic weapons. He dies just as quickly and easily as the soldiers that you've been killing throughout the game. There is no happy ending, everyone just ends up dead or severely wounded. CoD4 never devolves into the kind of "hooray for our boys" jingoism that plagues other shooters. the British and the Americans aren't the perfect embodiment of good, they're often sadistic and overconfident, respectively. the Russian ultranationalists aren't evil communists that want to control the world, they are a downtrodden group of people that have been scarred by the incident at Chernobyl, who feel that they have been used by their leaders, then left to fend for themselves. the only real bad guys are the middle eastern insurgents, and they're really just a very deadly side effect of the Russians' lust for revenge on a western world that they feel has screwed them over. This feeling of resentment is subtly but effectively captured in a flashback sequence that takes place 15 years prior to the events of the game, in which the player attempts to kill the main villain during an arms deal in a once bustling city turned into a ghost town by Chernobyl. The player fails to kill the target, instead leaving him with only one arm. This loss of capacity set against the backdrop of the catastrophy that has shaped the course of so many lives creates the kind of brilliant metaphor that is rarely seen in the Gaming medium, and explains the motivations of the character, as well as why the events of the game have happened as they have.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is the best, most practical example of games as an art form that I have ever come across. It is visually and sonically stunning, using different color palletes, visual effects, music, and sound effects to affect mood, setting, and feel. It is incredibly sound from a literary standpoint, using subtle metaphors as well as obvious imagery to underscore the points that it makes. It combines the different forms of art - visual, aural, and literary - into a cohesive whole, all of it's individual parts working to enhance the overall product as films do, then adds the interactivity and immersion that only gaming can provide to enance the experience. Call of Duty 4 not only proves that games are indeed an art form, but that they have the potential to be superior to movies or books from a literary standpoint. I only hope that more developers realize that abilty, and begin to make games that put even this masterpiece to shame.

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